Texas can't treat climate change like the elephant in the room anymore | Opinion – Austin American-Statesman

In August 2017, Hurricane Harvey struck the Texas Gulf Coast. In February and March 2024, wildfires swept across the Texas Panhandle.
The two disasters couldn’t be more different from each other. But they are linked. 
Harvey and the Panhandle wildfires were record-setting destructive events that tragically took the lives of Texans and caused extensive property damage. Harvey’s destruction was primarily caused by unprecedented rainfall. It was the worst rainfall event by amount of rain in U.S. history, killing more than 100 people when the storm stalled over the Houston area. The Panhandle wildfires started in extreme dryness and unusually high temperatures. The wildfires were the largest in state history, burning more than 1 million acres, taking three lives, killing 15,000 head of cattle, and destroying more than 100 homes and businesses in the Texas Panhandle and parts of Oklahoma.
The connection between Harvey and the wildfires is a global phenomenon that makes the conditions for such disasters more likely: climate change. Unfortunately, most Texas lawmakers refuse to acknowledge this part of the story. 
In response to the wildfires, Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan created a special committee to investigate and offer legislative recommendations for preventing and responding to future fires. The committee compiled its findings in a report released in May. 
Although the report acknowledges the unusual nature of wildfires in February, it does not mention climate change once. The report’s 42 pages focus on responding to fires with better equipment and other measures. Providing first responders with the best possible equipment and training to fight wildfires is good, and the committee deserves praise for those recommendations.
While we must find solutions to fight large wildfires, ignoring climate change is a glaring oversight. How could the investigative committee miss the climate change elephant in the room? After all, 2023 was the hottest year for the planet in recorded history, and 2024 could exceed it.
The report describes a pre-fire scene that warranted a climate discussion. It states that “unusually high temperatures (20 degrees warmer than average on February 26), low relative humidity and severe winds” created the “perfect” conditions for a record-setting fire. As part of its investigation, the committee held three hearings in Pampa, where witnesses appeared by invitation only. Not a single invited witness focused on climate change.  At Texas Tech University in Lubbock, a world-renowned climate science center sits just a two-hour drive away. Was an invitation sent to Tech? 
The reality of the climate crisis makes it harder for Texas to ignore it much longer. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, almost 400 climate- and weather-related disasters caused at least $1 billion in damages in the United States from 1980 to the end of 2023. Nearly half, 170 to be exact, were in Texas. 
Instead of doing anything significant to tackle climate change, state leaders prefer indulging powerful fossil fuel interests, which benefit from millions in taxpayer-funded subsidies. Too many lawmakers and regulators, who are supposed to hold the industry accountable, act as industry cheerleaders. Consider that although the committee identified abandoned oil wells as a major cause of wildfires, the report offers no stronger solution than asking the state’s oil regulator to clean up old wells, a responsibility the agency already owns and chronically underperforms on.
Harvey’s destruction was mainly caused by water, much different from the Panhandle wildfires. However, they are tied by the climate-induced conditions that make such disasters more likely and more severe when they happen. Higher temperatures increase evaporation, causing dryer conditions in some places and resulting in more atmospheric moisture that rains down in devastating amounts on other localities. It’s feast and famine, but the feast is just as deadly as the famine. 
Unless Texas acknowledges reality, it sticks its head in scorched and water-saturated sand.
White is the climate policy and outreach specialist for the Texas office of Public Citizen.